Categorically Speaking

Dubbed

One name
for a collection of can’ts,
of never wills and less-thans,
a singular bucket
into which they dump
the myriad ways
she comes up short.

Autism.

The rusty scuttle
whose name expands
to encompass
the collected others—
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Severe anxiety disorder.
Chronic polyuria.
Lordosis, Kyphosis.
Intellectual Disability.

Oh, I’ve made peace
with all the labels,
pocketed them, even,
as keys to the kingdom
of Getting Services.

It’s just behind
that big familiar bucket
the real of our story is told,

told and retold
at home, in the car,
on our daily walks,
when I sing her awake,
the telling and retelling
woven into all our routines.

Her future is unknown.
Worry for her safety
looms large,
and for that alone,
this wish to stay alive
as long as she,
well past my allotted time.

Yet
sure as sunrise,
deep as canyon,
boundless as evening sky
lives certitude—
my daughter knows

her names:
Love.
Loved.
Beloved.
She Who Hears Colors in Songs.

And her other names,
also true,
which she may or may not
recognize—

Patience Coach.
Systemizer Extraordinaire.
Incognizant Teacher
of the Core Curriculum
of the Heart.

–Melinda Coppola

For some who left

STAY

I want to dematerialize
and put myself back together
between his reedy young body
and the gun he stole
from his Uncle’s desk drawer
the night they
invited him for dinner.

I want to land hard
between her hands—
the same hands that
had just held
an acceptance letter
for the DC job of her dreams—
and the noose
she’d fashioned in secret
six months ago.

I want to hitchhike
way back to 1981 Vermont,
grab all those who knew him,
and beam us, every one,
to the edge of that Hawaii
volcano where they said
he’d jumped,
so we could form a human barricade
between his anguish
and that black hole.

I want to sing,
yell, cajole, say

It will get better.
It can,
I promise you

The world’s gonna need
you next week, next year,
you’re gonna leave a hole
that can’t be filled

and somewhere there is
someone who will
love you so much
you’ll be wrecked to think
you could ever have left
before you crossed paths

and someday
there’ll be a moment—
a car, a bike,
a wet road
distracted driver—
a child whose life
you will save

whose children
will cure cancer.

Please,
I want to say
don’t go.
Not yet.

Please,
let’s sit
and warm the ground
awhile.

–Melinda Coppola
#nationalpoetrymonth

Accepting Autism

Ten years ago, April was designated Autism Awareness month. April 2 is World Autism Awareness day. There has been a movement towards renaming both of these, replacing awareness with acceptance .

Robert Frost wrote,” Always fall in love with what you’re asked to accept. Take what is given, and make it over your way. My aim in life has always been to hold my own with whatever’s going. Not against: with.”

I don’t know many people who fight against the reality of autism. On the contrary, I know dozens of folks who have grasped their circumstances with both hands and shaped them into something meaningful, useful and beautiful. Affected individuals have found ways to educate non-autistic folk and improve the lives of others on the spectrum. Parents of children with the diagnosis have created organizations to assist with creative housing solutions, adapt recreational activities, and push legislation to protect our vulnerable loved ones from abuse and neglect.

I wrote the below poem four years ago. Today seems an appropriate time to share it once again.

Autism Awareness month is April,
World Autism Awareness Day, April 2
and, in case the day lacks color,
(as if any day with Autism in it could be dull),
the mysterious Namers-of-Days-and-months
have painted it a medium sort of blue.
I wonder who decided this;
and how it was chosen,
this perfectly ordinary second day,
and weighted with a long middle
moniker, like a fish
plucked out of the ocean,
tagged and thrown back
into what used to be
a perfectly ordinary fourth month.
And why a color? Why this one?
Does Autism look like blue
to outsiders?
Pondering this, I roll up my sleeves,
prep the tub for her,
the one who turned my life on its ear,
she who makes me laugh,
she who wears me out,
she who is a master of repetition,
she who defies reduction,
who is multi-colored, many-hued.
She who is unaware of your awareness,
who, if asked, would mutter “ Not interesting”,
she who needs help with a bath
but can take a thing
and spell it backwards,
report to the air/no one in particular
how many redundant vowels it contains,
and how her lunch reminds her
of Home on the Range.
She who hears songs in color,
who does not stay in her bed all night,
who is frightened of beads with holes,
she who knows if there’s a day to be aware of
it’s the fourth Friday in February,
which is called Ate Baby Kate, and that means bad,
and therefore must be worried about
many months in advance,
she who can sing whole CDs in order,
she who tells me thirty times a day
that I’m a girl ( in case I forget)
She who needs more than I have
who gives more than I need
who has more than you think,
who is more, so much more,
than you give her credit for.
And so, dear you-who-aren’t-aware,
please allow me to set the record straight.
Autism is multi-colored,
and awareness is every single day,
and no blue second day of any fourth month
will ever matter more
than your interest, your kindness, your respect,
your willingness to help us challenge
a world that would reduce anyone
to an assumption
or a label
in one color
on one day
within one month.

–Melinda Coppola

Little Altars Everywhere


My home is host
to little altars everywhere

honoring lives lived,
seasons arriving and leaving,

the hundred sparks of grace
and wonder, sorrow
and understanding

that pock and foliate
hours and years squeezed
into the dance of this body,

my particular, grand,
unbearably blessed
and gratefully transient
human experience.

On good days
I go bowing through the hours
stretched wide,
humbled by everything.

There are others, though—
minutes, whole
starless nights, mute weeks—
when these dry hands go numb
holding thin skin
tight to my bones

to keep the hope
from draining out
the holes
all the leaving
has left.

–Melinda Coppola

Notes from a Parallel Universe

I’ve written a fair amount about life with my adult child. As I plod ever so slowly towards creating a book about the journey, it occurs to me that the pace at which I’m working on that is in sync with the overall pace and rhythm of our life together. Bink will turn 28 this weekend. I’m not one to fixate on the differences between her development and that of a “typical” young adult, but the anniversary of her birth seems to stir things up for me. From that churn this poem arose.

The View from Here

You say
you just caught glimpses
of your child
as he sped past toddlerhood,
towards those labels
that mean everything
and nothing: child, tween,
teen, young adult.

Glimpses, you say,
as if it all tornadoed past you
while I stood stupefied,
hands in pockets,
by the side of some dusty cow path,
a perpetual look of dull
surprise on my unremarkable face.

Truth is,
over here our lives
are nothing like that.

We have plodded along
like turtles in the too-hot sun,
she and I,

pausing every few feet
to rest, to allow her
a few attempts at integrating
the latest sensory assault,

which could have been a wind
shaking the branches too fast,
or the distant sound
of a jake brake on a downhill semi
from a highway half a mile away.

Her needs are special,
which means our shimmy
is your slow dance,
our milestones
seem like simple addition
to your kid’s calculus.

I’m used to it,
adept at appreciating
the kinds of beauty
that decorate this life
that chose me, and her.

It’s not the pace of it all
that leaves me sweaty
and gasping for breath.

It’s my head spinning
as your children date
and learn to drive,
go to college,
get married,
have babies,
buy a house,

flying so far from your nest
you can’t squint enough
to make out the tiny dot
their bodies make
as they soar onward,
commanding the skies.

–Melinda Coppola

Me and My Shadow Go to Market

It is May 2020,
still early in
The Covid Times.

We take ourselves to the market,
by which I mean
our whole selves,
me in my layers of
self-consciousness—
the run of the mill kind
that most of us don
without thought—

she baring all, as usual:
no pretense, nothing to hide.

The market rule
in the time of virus:
No touching anything, honey,
except yourself or Mom.

We’ve gotten good at this one,
practicing since mid-March,
and so we go,
in service to our shopping list,
following the one way arrows
like breadcrumbs,

and her singing beams
a Disney-flavored sunshine
up and down the aisles
even through her mask.

She pauses in front of the dairy section,
(which means I pause, too)
halts her sunbeaming mid-song,
and announces to the floor,
” Mommy it looks like I have to pee.”

No beats to skip,
for we are well prepared,
the purple handled pee jug
bagged and ready
in the backpack,

nestling up against
the toilet paper,
flanked by two packs
of antiseptic wipes,

and into the bathroom we go,
my shoulder managing doors,
finding a stall, hooking
pack to hang,

pulling out
that magnificent portable
receiver of pee
that makes all outings
seem possible,
conquerable.

We navigate this
like so many other things,
my thought out plan
for safety and practicality

backlit by the simplicity
of her needs,
which aren’t so much special
as they are honest,

the whole thing shined up
by my gratitude, in recent years,
that she can name the feelings,
usually in time to stay dry.

We are each engaged
in familiar activities:
she is peeing
and I am musing,

wondering
and marveling
at what the world could be
if we were all more like her:

free of innuendo,
honest to a fault,
unable to fathom
marching to any beat
but our own.

–Melinda Coppola

LATELY

The ground seems foreign,
new roots and stones anchored
in the middle of familiar paths,

and my feet stumble more,
much more.
Are you stumbling too?

Such heavy air,
a downward press
on the shoulders
makes it hard to look up,
check out the sky.

I can’t speak for you,
but I feel your heart
even as we give each other
wide berth, passing
in the park and on the streets.

I can see your eyes
above your mask,
watch you avert them
long before I’m near.

If I turn on the news these days
it’s to study faces,
listen hard
for all that isn’t being said.

I can avoid the headlines
but still I feel your heart,
see your eyes looking left
or looking right

even as we all dwell
in the center of things.

Can’t we stand still
and see each other eye to eye?

Can’t we soften
just a little,
abstain for an hour or a day,
make a Sabbath, a Shabbat
of not doing the things we do,

not lowering the blinds and turning away from the street where life is happening,

not doing the things that almost seem required of late, that almost seem normal,

not heaving our personal pain onto the steaming pile of angst, then grabbing handfuls of it without looking, with our noses blocked, and throwing it at each other?

As if that helps.

As if that does anything
except maybe keep us distracted
for a moment or a year,
keeps us from breathing
into our common humanity,
allowing movement inside,

letting things rise and break free,
rise and dissipate.
rise and come into the sun to be named
and nourished, or released.

–Melinda Coppola

Medicament

Medicament

This morning’s waking,
tight and tender to the touch,
felt like neck ache,

and all along
the spine of this day
my heart climbed and slid,

ridge-riding
the grief and uncertainty
of these past months,

pushing up towards
bone-like pinnacles,
vertebraic protrusions
of more bad news—
illness and violence,
economic cancer,
people hating their neighbors—

and then
the intentional slide
over cushiony discs
hydrated with hope,

into valleys lush with
stories of great kindness,
dotted with golden gifts,
small sweet buds of peace
that can only bloom
with softened expectations.

Now at the tailbone
of a long sixteen hours,
no Downward Facing Dog
or Bridge Pose can save me
from this hunched pecking
at the keyboard,
almost desperate
to whiplash out a poem
or some semblance thereof.

How many ways
can we find
to harm each other?

and

Aren’t there an equal
number of ways
we can lift and hold,

tilt a hurting person
towards the light,
say

Look—
the way your cheek curves
towards your chin
is poetry.

And

You, over there—
talking to your cats
with your eyes alone,
see how they respond
by blinking back, slowly?

And

Old man, I’ve seen you
water your plants
with deep, unquestioned faith
that they’ll leaf and angle
towards the sun—

and isn’t that grace,

and aren’t we all,
every one of us,
a cure
for someone’s
unease?

–Melinda Coppola

Gifts and Visitations

It’s been just over a month since my dear friend and soul sister Marina died, after a quick and nasty tussle with appendiceal cancer. She visits my consciousness daily, in ways both fleeting and substantial. We talked a lot about the afterlife in her last months. She told me clearly that, when she visits me after her death, she’d make herself known in a way that looks like dragonflies.

The first sighting occurred less than twelve hours after she passed. I was with Bink, walking at one of our favorite Audubon sites. There, a trail unrolls through a little forest before splitting itself in two. To the right, a lovely treed path eventually leads to a small bridged dam, pausing before heading into more woods and on beside a waterfall.

Choice two runs straight ahead at the fork to a wee bridge that cinches a pond on either side. This beckons onto a boardwalk over more water, with an option to follow a path into an almost wildly overgrown bit of land.

It’s a magical place, one that my little family appreciates tremendously. That final Sunday in June was the first time Bink and I had been back since Covid-19 had closed most Audubon trails in mid March. We were delighted to learn of the re-opening, in time to greet the summer growth gracing the land. Across the water, a thick blanket of lily pads hosted frogs napping in the sun. Turtles rested atop rocks protruding from the pond. The air buzzed with insect life.

It was on the boardwalk that the first dragonfly came into my vision. She hung in the air in front of me, sunlight shimmering off her blue-green body. I tried to capture a picture of her, but each time I positioned my iphone she flitted out of the screen.

Soon, I noticed more dragonflies. Different colors and sizes, all dancing and hovering around me and Bink and above the water. Well, I told myself, this is dragonfly heaven! Of course they are here. Doesn’t mean that it’s Marina.

At home a few days later, Superguy pointed wordlessly out the window over our kitchen sink. We have planter boxes and a large pot or two on the deck out there. A lone dragonfly hovered in the thick air between a raised box and the plants thriving in the pot next to it. Thirty seconds, one minute. Maybe two. There she is, I thought. She’s here, he may have said.

Earlier this month, we stayed at a small rental on the Cape for a week. It was a hasty decision we made back in February, pre-Covid. The house we’d rented and loved for years had sold recently, and we were mourning the loss of that sweet yearly week. We’d driven down to the area to look for another option, hoping for something, anything, that would be within a short walk to the beach we love.

We found a cottage and were able to view the inside. It was much smaller than the previous one, paneled in pine that was darkened by age. It was also available for a week this summer! We put a deposit down on the spot.

Marina, whom I’d seen the month before, had not yet been diagnosed with the cancer that would take her life. She’d been tired when I saw her, and only vaguely aware of some indigestion.

When my little family arrived for our July week at the cottage, we went around to the back door to retrieve the hidden key the owner had told us about. There was a metal sculpture on the backside of the house. Hmmm, I thought. Dragonfly? No, it looked more like a butterfly.

We went inside. The small kitchen opened out into an equally compact dining area and living room. There, on a shelf looking out towards the front window, was a colorful square canvas with—you guessed it—a beautiful dragonfly on it. Tears welled up in my eyes.

In the bedroom off the kitchen, the same dark wood covered the walls. Superguy was the one who spotted it first: the sole decoration in that room was a colorful cohort of dragonflies, rendered in metal and nailed to the wall.

A few days after we arrived, my love said,” Hey, did you notice the dragonfly art by the back door?” “Oh, yes,” said I. But I think it’s actually a butterfly. Noooo, he mouthed soundlessly, his silver hair catching the scant light from the back door as he shook his head. We went out to examine it more closely. “See this elongated body? That’s not a butterfly. It’s a dragonfly.” And so it was.

Bink loves to swim. Recently, as she swam in a local lake, her head bowed as she dipped her curious, goggled eyes beneath the surface, M landed lightly on her back. She stayed there for several minutes, not moving.

Another day, a dragonfly appeared on the inside wall of our garage. She just sat there, watching and being watched, for a long time.

I’ve made online connections with others who knew and loved Marina. There have been strings of messages between us, and a tender Zoom memorial service this past weekend. We’re scattered around the globe, yet many of us have had dragonfly sightings in recent weeks.

Sometimes, I hear Marina talking to me. It’s reassurance that all is well, that she is indeed in bliss. There’s more, though.

Marina was an artist. Like many creatives, it took her a long time to truly and firmly believe in her art. It was only in the last two years she was financially able to cut her “real world” work to a minimum and give her deep attention to the gestation and birth of her evolving artwork.

She first knew me as a young poet. At twenty, I was untamed and bohemian. Poetry poured through my fingers when I sat with a journal. Through the years, my visiting time with Marina was often spent making art, with hours of talking and laughing punctuated by periods of absolute, easy silence.

One of the gifts my friend tried to give me over the last few years was what she called the YES, AND. Marina understood the constraints of my life circumstances over the past few decades. Through my descriptions, and the perpetual need to do careful advance planning for our scant visits or even our phone calls, she had a good sense of what is involved with parenting a child who has significant special needs.

She knew that I love my daughter without limits and beyond comprehension, that my commitment to her wellness and growth is lifelong and unwavering.

She also knew how I longed, long to have great expanses of unfettered time to write and paint and make art with beach stones and fully explore the wellspring of creativity that has always been part of my bone structure.

“Don’t starve your soul,” she’d say. “YES, you are an amazing mother. YES, your daughter needs you. AND—make time for the art. You have books inside you and your painting is full of Goddess energy and whimsy and you need to let it out. Don’t let it die.”

Sometimes, I accepted the gift of her words graciously, gave them a nod, then dove right back into the thick stew of my life. A few times, I let her words really penetrate. Paintings would come to life in snatches of time. Poems would press themselves out in pieces on my Mac, waiting patiently to be shepherded into something complete and satisfying.

When Marina extends her energy into my moments now, she knows I feel her offering gifts again. If she were in the flesh, she’d say YES. It’s a full plate. Covid has magnified it all. Bink will always need. AND you need to tend your whole garden, sweetie. The whole damned thing.”

–Melinda Coppola

Dragonflies

Image by Rona Kline

Image by Rona Kline

As I write this, my dear friend Marina lies dying in a lovely room inside the oldest house in an historic and pretty New Hampshire town. A wonderful woman who worked with her in the local general store has taken her into her home. Hospice has set her up well with a hospital bed that adjusts in many ways and keeps moving different parts of her body to prevent some of the pain associated with not being able to get out of bed.

A mere six months ago, Marina was celebrating the purchase of a little house in New Mexico, old stomping grounds for her. She envisioned growing old there while making her art and reconnecting with the culture in an area of the country she has long loved for its people and its wide, open skies. She planned to move there this month, just after celebrating her solo art show at The Newton Free Library the first week of June.

Covid 19 would likely have postponed the show, as it slowed or halted so many things. The pandemic burst into dominance at the same time that my friend had a scan that looked very suspect.

Her journey has been fraught with suffering and pain as the diagnoses and prognoses grew increasingly dark through the weeks. She has had deep sorrow, and also joy and gratitude and acceptance. I’ve written a bit about this already, and it isn’t actually what I’ve come here to the page to say.

We humans can be so apathetic about being incarnated. We act as if we have unlimited time, as if each day isn’t positively bursting with beauty and grace and opportunities to bring meaning and comfort to at least one other being.

Many of us are quite good at identifying what we don’t want and don’t like. We tend to focus on those things, and it can feel easier to blame the ensuing feelings on outside circumstances. We seem to expend enormous energy tearing each other down.

Though I am a great advocate of the practices of presence and loving kindness, I’m far from immune to the easy drop into anxiety and despair. I can make an impressive list of Everything That Sucks as fast as the next person. I can bemoan the ways in which Other People are directly contributing to the pain and suffering of the larger world and to my own little sphere as well. I can list twenty ways the shutdown has created enormous distress and anxiety for families like ours that include an individual with special needs.

The pandemic and cancer diagnoses are among the teachers that remind us how little control we actually have over many of the circumstances of our lives. Those same professorial forces can illustrate our superpowers. We all have them. Most days, I think, we can choose to do and to be in ways that can make an enormous difference to all living things—people and animals and trees and flowers. We can choose to be present with each other, to listen deeply and hold each being with respect and regard and learn great things that can alter the ways we treat each other and our earth.

Each life is precious. Life itself is an exquisite gift. Everyone has a story, everyone carries pain and joy. We are all works in progress, weaving tapestries of our memories and experiences. No two will look the same, and we have so much to teach each other.

My friend has stopped eating and drinking, and she is mostly nonresponsive now. I know that she’ll graduate into the great love that surrounds us and created us. She knows this, too. “Look for the dragonflies,” she told me a few weeks ago. A few days after that, “Look for dragonflies. Especially the unusual ones.”

Dragonflies represent transformation and adaptability and wisdom. They are associated with water, that magical, life-giving, shape shifter element that adapts to every container and circumstance. My friend has had one tattooed on her left arm for quite a long time, now. I didn’t tell her that I’ve never felt a strong pull towards them. I know that is about to change.

–Melinda Coppola
Post Script: Marina Powdermaker passed away in the first hour of Sunday, June 28, 2020. She was two months shy of her 59th birthday.